Lottery Visas

What is the Visa Lottery?

The diversity visa lottery issues 55,000 visas each year by lottery, to nationals of countries considered underrepresented in the immigrant flow.

Until 1965, our immigration system favored immigrants who reflected the ethnic characteristics of our society. Heightened concerns about racism brought about by the system civil rights movement led to the scrapping of the system. Ironically, the current visa lottery system is a throwback to the earlier race-conscious system. It structures the immigrant admission system to discriminate among immigrant-sending countries in order to increase the number of immigrants from "underrepresented" countries.

The first visa lottery provision was adopted in 1986, with a set-aside of 10,000 "special visas" for immigrants from countries "adversely affected" by the 1965 Immigration Act. Over three-fifths of the 10,000 visas went to immigrants from Ireland, Canada and the United Kingdom. They were adversely affected by the 1965 Act only in that residents from those countries first experienced a ceiling that had not affected them previously.

In 1990, a new permanent lottery of 55,000 visas per year was enacted, and a transitional system of 40,000 visas per year (1992 to 1994) was specified. Of the 108,435 transitional lottery winners who entered the United States through fiscal year 1994, 84% were from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland or Canada. Natives of these countries had not been suffering from any discrimination in our past administration of our immigration policy.

1995 marked the beginning of the permanent "diversity" lottery for 55,000 visas per year. Unlike the transitional system, it is supposed to discriminate against countries that have large flows of immigrants already, like Mexico and the Philippines. The Act was cleverly worded, however, so that the lottery would remain open to the Irish. That is one of the major faults with the lottery system: because it is "designer immigration," it invites tinkering for or against nationals of a given foreign country.

Legislative Developments

In November 1994, by executive agreement, President Clinton accepted to set up a one-country immigrant visa lottery for Cubans. In November 1997, Congress adopted an amnesty for Nicaraguans and Cubans and special screening provisions for other Central Americans who had come illegally to the United States during the revolutionary fighting in their homelands. To offset this adjustment process, the ceiling of 55,000 on lottery immigrants was lowered to 50,000 until the amnesty process was completed.

Who is Eligible

Anyone who is not a national of one of the overrepresented countries is eligible if they otherwise meet the admission criteria and have at least the equivalent of a high school education. Unlike the normal visa criteria, the visa applicants do not need to have a sponsoring family member or employer. They don't even have to apply from their home country. They can be already in the United States in legal or illegal status. How then can they show that they are not likely to become a public charge in the United States? That is taken care of for many of the applicants by the fact that they are already working illegally in the United States.

That is a second major flaw with the lottery system. It acts as a system to legalize the status of persons who are illegal aliens already here. They don't have to go back home to file their lottery application, they can do it from their local post office here. The message to the illegal alien community here is that we are not serious in saying that they should not be here.

What is Wrong with the Visa Lottery?

As noted above the visa lottery is an inappropriate form of tailoring our admissions policy to the social objectives of one group of politicians or political activists or another. The system meets no national need, since there are no specific skills or ability required. In addition, as also noted above, the visa lottery acts to reward illegal aliens already in the United States and thereby to communicate the message that we are not serious in our efforts to combat illegal immigration. Other undesirable effects of the visa lottery are as follows:

  • Unwanted Competition for America's Minorities
    The visa lottery is bad public policy in that it disadvantages American-born minorities. In effect, the post 1994 visa lottery is a form of affirmative action program for foreigners. Our domestic affirmative action programs do not distinguish between foreign-born minorities and native-born minorities. As a result, new African immigrants, for example, are thrown into competition with African Americans. Many American blacks consider this undesirable competition.


  • Reinventing Our Nation
    The visa lottery was crafted to satisfy narrowly focussed ethnic interests. The designers knew that today's immigrants become tomorrow's sponsors for other immigrant family members under the chain migration system that characterizes our overall system. They apparently were not satisfied with the dramatic demographic change the nation has undergone over the past 25 years and is expected to undergo over the next 25 years.

    In both the past and the future, the major vehicle for ethnic change is immigration, but rather than a fairly gradual, passive process of change, as in the past, the lottery designers increased the pace of change in our society. If this direction for our immigration policy represented a national consensus of what we as a nation wanted, the policy would be unexceptionable. However, there has never been any effort to explain to the public the nature of this program. Rather than being based on public consensus, it is a program that was adopted behind the public's back.

  • Absence of Public Support
    Americans have clearly expressed a strong majority view that immigration is too high and should be lowered. That view was expressed by 83% of respondents in a large national Roper poll. Clearly, the 55,000 immigrant lottery visas would be a prime candidate for elimination in any reductions. The Commission on Immigration Reform tacitly adopted that position by eliminating the lottery from its recommended immigration framework. In hearings before the Commission, representatives of various immigration groups were asked what programs should be considered most expendable. The visa lottery was the most often cited candidate for elimination. It has very little support.

  • Fueling Illegal Entry
    Not only does the visa lottery reward aliens illegally residing in the United States, it seems likely to promote additional illegal immigration. Millions of applications are received for the annual 55,000 visas. Millions, therefore, are encouraged to take the first step toward trying to gain residence in our country. For the vast majority, who do not win, the thought may have been planted to take their chances in the next year's lottery from inside the United States.

  • The Issue of Equity to Other Visa Applicants
    There is also a question of equity. Our immigration preference system has led to visa waiting lists of family-sponsored immigrants that may require a wait of years to get a visa. Is it appropriate to admit ahead of them -- without any wait -- persons who win the lottery drawing? And, doesn't it seem obvious that the presence of lottery winners who were illegally here would reinforce the message to those in the visa waiting list, that they too might as well take their chances on immigrating illegally and hope to become legal immigrants through the lottery?

  • The Population Growth Message
    The visa lottery also sends the message to the world that we think that we need more immigrants. Why else would we be issuing lottery visas? Do we want to promote the view internationally that we still have unlimited space for new settlers? Do we want foreigners to think that the United States is immune from the population pressures being experienced by most of the world and that it is still a refuge from the crowding and environmental degradation that is being experienced elsewhere? In fact the United States already has a population that may be too large for long-term sustainability, especially in terms of our damage to the environment, and we need to be adopting policies to stabilize our population, not fuel further growth.

    The message that we should be sending to the world is that the United States is fully populated, but we will keep the immigration door open to immigrants who meet narrowly defined national interests. Others who try to come illegally will be apprehended and sent back home. In other words, we will still accept applications to join our society, but we will no longer encourage them.

  • Exploiting the Aspirations of the Guilable
    A final reason that the visa lottery is a bad system and should be abolished, is that it is an easy target for exploitation by unscrupulous persons who take advantage of the aspirations of foreigners to immigrate to the United States. Numerous firms are advertising abroad that they can facilitate the lottery entry requirements for a fee. In fact the entry procedure is simple and costs nothing other than postage. The problem is that many people around the world are not well informed about the lottery and are easy prey for these unscrupulous agents. Unfortunately, they are not breaking any U.S. law by their activities, and the only thing that would shut down their operations would to abolish the lottery.

Congress Needs to Know What You Think

Do you agree that the visa lottery is wrong for the country? If so, you may want to make sure that your representatives in the U.S. Congress are better informed on this issue and aware of your views.




Modified 7/02